Research Brief: Suicide

In Canada in 2011: 2781 men committed suicide and 947 women. In Canada historically, men have consistently commited suicide at 3 to 4 times the rate of women. In other countries around the world the ratio is as high as 7.5:1. Caucasian men and aboriginal men commit the highest rates of suicide. Older men commit suicide more than younger men, with the peak age of 40-59. 90 percent of suicides involved someone with mental health or addiction issues and 60 percent of that was depression. Single men were more likely to commit suicide.

Suicide is an undeniably gendered issue. In the seminal study Suicide, Emile Durkheim noted in the year 18xx that men killed themselves at greater rates across all countries he studied. It is a universal and long-term pattern.

There are 6 major causes for suicide that often intersect and overlap: Mental illness, addiction, marital/relationship breakdown, financial hardship, physical health problems and a major loss. Each factor represents its own unique problems.

In 1968 the Divorce Act was passed, leading to a 128 percent increase in the divorce rate in 1969. The suicide rate for men spiked at the same rate.

‘Stoicism does not make ‘strong men,’ it makes brittle men who are prone to crack. Men are socialized to suppress their emotions and ‘be a man.’ Strength is desirable and weakness shunned. Male culture encourages isolation and suppression of any sign of helplessness. Self worth and identity are tied intimately to ability to earn wealth and be physically capable. Instead of coping by using social support, they snap. Dramatic losses in relationships, wealth or abilities can result in sudden, violent self-inflicted death by men.

The ‘gender paradox’ of suicide refers to the fact that women attempt suicide at twice the rate of men but men commit suicide 3-4 times the rate in actuality. Men use more violent and fatal methods. Hanging in 46 percent of men’s suicides and guns in 20 percent. In contrast, women most frequently use poison. Men chose methods that are very likely to cause a fatality.

In accounts of women’s aborted suicide attempts, they cite their concern over family relations depending on them. Accounted narratives of men’s final moments describe fatalistic determinism in the face of seemingly insurmountable issues. Women have an ‘ethic of family’ while men have an ‘ethic of justice.’ Instead of appealing to social ties and emotional bonds, men are compelled to take their lives if presented with a certain trigger event.

Having children reduces suicide for women but not for men. It is likely that if men were more connected and involved with their children’s lives there could be reduced suicide.

Childhood sexual abuse may be a highly significant but largely unreported factor in male suicide. There is a culture of male silence. Isolation, loneliness and social rejection can all be triggers for male suicide.

Men have maladaptive coping mechanisms for trauma or mental health problems. Men use illicit drugs and alcohol at higher rates than women. Instead of relying on friends, family, community or state support, men isolate themselves and consume psychoactive substances to escape.

Women have access to more mental health and social support services. Single, childless men have a significant lack of access. Women are encouraged to seek mental health support while men are stigmatized for it. The female identity is not threatened by getting help for depression while for men it is a sign of weakness and contrary to masculinity. Substance abuse and alcoholism are frequently more stigmatizing for women so men have higher rates of both, which lead to mental health and addiction issues.

Further Reading: Suicides in Prisons: A Gender Based Perspective